Gender Balance in Ultimate Frisbee

Internationally there are 3 “flavours” of Ultimate: Mixed, Open and Women’s. Mixed should be a 50/50 split on gender. Open has a few women playing, but is basically guys. Women’s is, well women’s. In Wellywood, we play “mixed” – but what this really meant when I started was “token woman” – for the 5-a-side competition you needed to have 1 woman on the team at once, and that was all.

Things have moved on a bit – last year the NZU (sport’s governing body) set the tournament gender mix as 3:4/4:3, offence choice, and locally we’ve been trying to move towards that for some time, moving from 1:4 to 1:4/2:3, offence choice, to last year setting it at 2:3. For the 7-a-side comp, we moved competitive to 3:4 flat, and left social at 2:5/3:4, offence choice.

This increase has generally been met with resistance from old clubs and teams. When you start in a mixed sport that calls for 1:4, you resist moving to 2:3. Because of this historical change in gender requirements, generally speaking, older teams are more skewed towards male players, whereas new teams are often balanced or even slanted the other way. What this means is that new women come along to play for new teams either don’t get much game time or have to mark guys. Not only mark guys, but almost universally mark guys that are vastly more experienced than they are. Consequently, in my time as Leagues Coordinator, I’ve seen 4 brand-new teams with an even gender split come along, play, get pasted, stop playing. And hence overall the gender balance doesn’t improve much.

We have ended up legislating ahead of the curve – something plausible for the teams right now, but pushing them to find more women.

The problem is that there reaches a point where you run out of women that you know. If there’s a single female that I know that hasn’t been pitched ultimate as a sport, it’s an oversight. So the rate at which teams are “catching up” has slowed, and now it’s at the point where I think that since there are tonnes more guys than girls, we should run a league alongside where guys can play without women, and change the remaining league to being properly mixed.

I think that this would result in far better retention of the women that do decide to play, and also mean that guys could form teams and play without having to blackmail every girl they know into trying the sport out. Win/win, right? Well I was told that anything along these lines would “destroy ultimate”, and the answer was to “recruit fewer guys” – this seems nuts to me. Anyway, I lost that debate in spectacular fashion – gender matching took a step back to 1:4/2:3 and 2:5/3:4.

The arguments for this are basically that if you have a team with lots of women playing one with no women, the matching is a half-way compromise that keeps everyone happy. And maybe that’s true if the gender matching is close (one or two women different), but that’s just not the case… and while I can see that pushing it does adversely affect the most male-dominated teams, I did propose creating a league where they could play anyway.

Some of the counter-arguments I got though are breaking my brain. One player argued against increasing the gender requirements in the competitive grades because she didn’t want the grade flooded with inexperienced women, which would lessen her ability to improve through tough competition. I can almost see the logic there except that the same player asked me to change the youth-equivalent age (where a kid counts as a woman) downwards as she didn’t like competing with 15 year old boys, feeling they were too tough!

I think that the main problem here is that people get so bogged down in their own specific team’s needs that they can’t apply any real strategic vision to planning this stuff. My gentle pushing on the gender balance was a plan started by the previous president 3 years ago – she had that vision of a truly mixed sport. The inability of a couple of key teams to find more women has meant that rather than marginalizing that minority has effectively trumped the generally improving ability of everyone else to recruit and retain women. Instead of acknowledging that if they can’t find women they should be able play in a league that doesn’t need them we insist on clinging to the notion of a mixed sport. Which means you just can’t win.

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4 Responses to Gender Balance in Ultimate Frisbee

  1. If there’s a single female that I know that hasn’t been pitched ultimate as a sport, it’s an oversight.

    Dude, if there’s a single person that you know that hasn’t been pitched ultimate as a sport, I’d be shocked. 😉

  2. adrexia says:

    Gender went down for 5’s?? That’s super lame. Almost worth complaining to the exec about. I can understand A grade having issues with women, but why are we lowering it in the social grades? That’s where new women should start. This is a giant leap backwards.

    Gender age where boys count as girls should be 14 and under. That’s what the international rules say, so it’s what we should have too. The player who wants tougher competition should really start marking guys if the women are too easy to mark. I wonder what’s stopping her…

    • mashugenah says:

      I fought really hard for keeping it at 2F:3M, but was out-voted in the end – there was a majority preference for the matching rule.

      I strongly encourage you to complain to the exec – Alaina and I were basically the only ones in not in favour of reducing the gender matching.

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